350th anniversary of Rhode Island's "lively experiment" in religious freedom
Providence 375 Essay Series
by Stanley Lemons,
Emeritus Professor of History, Rhode Island College and Church Historian for the First Baptist Church in America
The greatest contribution that the United States has made to world religion is the concept and practice of separation of church and state, and that was started in Providence with Roger Williams in 1636. Even if nothing in the rest of the history of our state was remarkable, Providence would still have that one world-class contribution to its credit. It was the first place in modern history where citizenship and religion were separated, where freedom of conscience was the rule.
Religious freedom is a fundamental principle for a truly democratic government. Senator Claiborne Pell reminded us at the October 22, 1984 dedication of the Roger Williams National Memorial that under the leadership of Roger Williams, “Thirteen householders in the population of thirty-two in the first year formed the first genuine democracy–also the first church-divorced and conscience-free community–in modern history.” These were completely radical ideas in Williams’ time. While his ideas were reviled and attacked in the 17th century, they became embodied in the Constitution of the United States in 1789 and in the Bill of Rights in 1791.
Have you wondered why there is a Roger Williams Lodge of B’nai B’rith? Why the oldest synagogue in America is in Rhode Island? Have you ever wondered why Rhode Island never had a witch trial? Or blasphemy trials? Nor hanged, whipped or jailed people because of religion? All the other colonies executed witches, but not Rhode Island. Most had blasphemy trials, but not Rhode Island. Nearly everywhere else in colonial America, people of faith were persecuted, but not in Rhode Island. Massachusetts hanged four Quakers, and Virginia imprisoned dozens of Baptists. Maryland, which was created as a haven for Roman Catholics, came to outlaw Catholic priests and forbade Roman Catholics from inheriting property. These things did not happen here because Roger Williams founded Providence to be a “shelter for those distressed of conscience.” Rhode Island’s freedom of religion prevented such religious laws and abuses.
It is well to recall how this came about. Roger Williams got into serious trouble in Massachusetts when he challenged both the political and religious establishments by asserting that the government had no role in religion. Moreover, he challenged the legitimacy of the colony itself by charging that they had stolen their land from the Indians. As a result he was tried and convicted of sedition, heresy, and the refusal to take an oath of allegiance to the colony which required him to swear in God’s name. In October 1635 he was ordered to be banished to England from whence he had fled in 1630 because of religious persecution. Before the banishment could be carried out, he fled from Salem into the snow in January 1636 and trekked to the Narragansett Bay. In June he left the shelter of the Wampanoags and crossed the Seekonk River into the domain of the Narragansetts. From Miantonomi and Canonicus he acquired Providence. His relations with the Narragansetts were so cordial that Providence and the Narragansetts remained allies for the next forty years against the efforts of Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Plymouth colonies to destroy them both.
When the householders first gathered in Providence to form their town government, they agreed that they could make rules and laws in “civil matters only.” In 1644 when Williams secured his charter for the “Province of Providence Plantations in Narragansett Bay in New England,” that charter was for a “civil government.” It did not mention religion because Williams did not believe that government had any role to play in religion. “Soul liberty” was God’s gift to all humanity; it was not something granted by any government.
Soul liberty was the freedom of every person to follow the dictates of his or her conscience. A government could only acknowledge this freedom and stand aside to allow full freedom of religion. This meant that one had to have complete separation of church and state. For Roger Williams, separation of church and state was for the protection of the church from the corrupting effects of government. Williams wrote repeatedly that true religion needs no support of the government and that government support invariably corrupts religion. As an 18th century disciple of Roger Williams declared: “The government has no more to say about religion than it does about the principles of mathematics, which is nothing.”
All of the neighboring colonies regarded Providence Plantations with undisguised horror and worked for the first hundred years to dismember and destroy this “hive of heretics.” But, they failed, and the principle that Roger Williams planted in Providence in 1636 came to be the law of all of Rhode Island and then a basic principle of the United States of America. And, Roger Williams, whose ideas were roundly rejected by everybody in his lifetime, would be seen by the 20th century as the “quintessential American” of the 17th century. More books, dissertations, movies, plays, and operas have been written about him than all of his detractors. By now, all of those who opposed him in the 17th century have been forgotten or shrunk to a pigmy by comparison. What was the founding principle of Providence–freedom of religion (which demands separation of church and state)–now holds out a hope for the whole world where religious intolerance is the basis of so much strife.
Williams believed that it was God’s command that everyone (including people that he regarded as heretics, pagans, atheists, and infidels) had a right to freedom of conscience. He believed that anyone had a right to be wrong, and that only civil debate could be used to change a heart or mind. The only tools of religion were those of the spirit, never the sword. For him, the state had no role to play in religion. He believed that whenever and wherever the government tried to meddle with religion by trying to define it or control it or enforce it, or even to support it, religion was corrupted by such efforts. He wrote that Emperor Constantine did far more harm to Christianity by embracing and supporting Christianity than did Nero who burned Christians to illuminate his garden parties! He regarded the union of church and state as the ultimate corruption of religion, and the proof of it was in the rampant hypocrisy of “Christendom” and the savage wars of religion that shed “rivers of blood.” Catholics and Protestants slaughtered each other, all in the name of Christ, trying to force each other to conform to the state religion. To all of this, Williams declared, “Forced worship stinks in the nostrils of God!”
Roger Williams and his good friend John Clarke of Newport firmly believed that the key to a peaceful society was complete separation of church and state. Nearly everyone else in their world believed just the opposite: they believed that peace was possible only when everyone was united in a single church in a single state. Williams believed that each person had freedom of conscience and freedom to practice their faith. Nearly everyone else thought that the state had to punish and coerce those who had the wrong religion, the wrong practices, the wrong ideas. Williams’ ideas about freedom of religion were wildly radical in his day. They are still wildly radical in great swathes of today’s world. Religious freedom does not exist in most nations on the planet. Many parts of our world are 375 years behind where Roger Williams was in 1636.
What would Roger Williams think of the idea that our nation was founded as a Christian nation? Certainly Providence and Rhode Island were not founded as a Christian government. It is deeply troubling to know that a pastor of one of the largest churches in Texas declared on national TV that “separation of church and state is the product of some infidel’s mind.” To call Roger Williams an infidel reveals profound ignorance of our nation’s history. But, it plays into that current myth that this nation was founded as a Christian nation. Roger Williams utterly rejected any such concept and regarded the idea of a “Christian nation” as “blasphemy.” So, he established a government that was confined to “civil matters only,” and this has grown to be a model for the world.